A Comic’s Voice

John Roy is an LA-based comedian who I met a year or two back through mutual friends. In addition to being a rising stand-up comic, John is also a big comics fan and writer. In fact, over the beers we’ve had, I think most of our discussions have revolved around comics and/or process.

I ran across a posting on John’s Tumblr, where someone asked about “finding their voice”– and I thought John’s answer was extremely insightful. Though he’s speaking in stand-up comic terms, I think the advice is sound for all writers and is very much worth a read.

Here’s the question, and John’s response:

Hey John, I hope I am not being intrusive, but I am a huge fan and wanted some advice on writing bits. Here is my problem, I want to talk about things that have happened in my life, but I don’t want them to come off cliche, also I am having trouble finding my voice. What are your thoughts?

  • Thanks for the questions.As far as making sure your stories are not cliche, I recommend using as many specific details about your life as possible. That way it immediately becomes something personal.As an example of this, I recommend “Louis Ck Live at The Beacon Theatre” currently on Netflix. Specifically the story about getting too high after the show and going through a drive through. The description of the joke shows how easily it could sound like a road comedy cliche that you would find boring.But watch how many details Louis brings to the story that mark it as something that could happen only to him.Think about music. “Still the One” by Shania Twain is a cliche song, down to the first line “Looks like we made it.” And every line after that. Why? It’s completely vague and generic. Looks like who made it? Who are these people? I defy you to give me one specific detail about the narrator or subject of that song. It could be about anybody, so it sounds like it’s about nobody.Then listen to “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. A far superior song. And it sounds like a very real and specific story. Why? Tons of details. Never do you feel like this story is a cliche. You can almost see the events Michael describes taking place.Give details to your stories and you will always avoid cliche bits.As for “finding your voice,” this is a term whose definition I have always found to be unclear.If you take “finding your voice” to mean learning what makes you uniquely funny and different from other comics, and to know how to write and perform from that point of view on purpose, then this is a process that takes years. And it’s not something you can try to do.

    And it isn’t some moment where Luigi eats the mushroom and grows or Goku’s muscles get big and his hair turns blonde and now he is a Super Sayan forever.

    You won’t walk around as someone who’s “found his voice” and now you are some kind of comedy Jedi.

    Searching for this transformation moment has sidetracked many a comic down a mistaken quest for a grail that doesn’t exist.

    But you will find that over time, you will have a much better idea of why you specifically are a funny person and what material best expresses your personal vision of what is funny.

    How? Go over your set. Which jokes do you love? Which jokes, if you heard in another comic’s act, would make you love that comic like your personal heroes? Ask yourself why that joke does that for you, and aim for that same quality when you write. It isn’t easy, but consciously studying your own work against your own personal taste in comedy is the way you get to your “voice.”

    And on the flip side, what jokes in your own act would not excite you if you heard another comic tell them? Be honest with yourself. And don’t let whether or not that joke kills in the set influence you in any way. And do this every month! Forever!

    Maximizing the jokes that you love and removing jokes that you don’t will begin the long process of “finding your voice.”

    And understand that even once you know what it is you do well, and why people like you and what you are passionate about saying, you must maintain constant vigilance in your act to keep producing material in “your voice” because your brain will continue to write material that isn’t.

    Like everything in comedy, your “voice” is always a work in progress.


    You can find the original post on John’s Tumblr:

    or, follow him on Twitter, @johnroycomic

    As a little bonus, here’s– I think our first video on the Archive, like, ever. John on Conan:

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